Boston Legal: Season Four

The wacky cases, the liberal bloviating, the plot contrivances would all make this unbearable…but for one of the finest male-to-male friendships ever presented on television.

Boston Legal

Distributor: Fox
Cast: James Spader, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, John Laroquette, Christian Clemenson, Saffron Burrows, Tara Summers
Network: Fox
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2008-09-23

Every episode of Boston Legal concludes with the same scene. Star attorney Alan Shore (James Spader) and past-his-prime partner Denny Crane (William Shatner) luxuriate in post-prandial comfort on a balcony overlooking Boston, drinking Scotch, smoking cigars and talking. In a show that spends much of its time in way-over-the-top-ville, these intimate scenes are strikingly real.

The two discuss their cases, their lives, their politics and their histories with wonderful sympathy and understatement. It is not unusual for Crane to come right out and say, “I love you” to Shore, nor for the romantically-inept Shore to observe that, even without love or family, at least the two of them have each other.

In every episode (even the opener where Shore performs this scene in full-drag as a Lennon sister), these scenes are essential, grounding and humane. Without them, Boston Legal could easily devolve into a sit com.

Shore and Crane – along with Candice Bergen’s Shirley Schmidt – are the only three original characters left in this fourth season. The series, which spun off from The Practice in 2004, started out with Crane defending Shore after he was dismissed with minimal severance from Young Frutt & Berluti. Shore subsequently joined Crane Poole & Schmidt and became one of its most successful litigators.

Crane has been sidelined as his skills diminish. It is probably not an accident at this super-liberal show that he, the only overtly conservative character, has been diagnosed with early Alzheimers (or, as he calls it “mad cow”).

These two characters make up the core of the show and they – and the actors who play them – could hardly be more different. Spader, a good bit older and heavier than you’ll recall from Sex, Lies and Videotape is a master of understatement, his noncommittal “Ah” conveying a full range of nuanced thoughts and feelings.

He plays a very intelligent man, kind in his way, well-dressed, confident, but subtly twisted underneath. His relationship with Saffron Burrows’ Lorraine Weller is almost a parody of barely repressed kinkery. He’s the kind of actor who makes thinking visible – and when he stops thinking (whenever Lorraine steps in) it’s fairly shocking.

Shatner, as you might expect, plays things a bit more broadly. His character is all id and no super-ego, during the course of the season getting arrested for sex with a hooker, wandering around the office pantsless, considering a run at the White House and farting audibly in the Supreme Court. (You’ll understand that I’m just hitting the highlights.) And still, you can see why the straight-laced Shore is attracted to him. He lives in the now, he lives for himself, and he doesn’t overthink the consequences.

Perhaps the funniest scene in the whole fourth season occurs in “Tabloid Nation” when Crane thinks he has a chance at romance with Candice Bergen’s Shirley Schmidt. To win her over, he convinces himself that he must show sensitivity, even cry. Not trusting to nature, he hires a technician to rig his tear ducts with tubes, so that he can weep on cue. Of course, the scheme goes awry. At the romantic dinner with Shirley, the tubes start squirting uncontrollably, like a hose, blasting his dinner companion until her mascara runs.

And yet, for all his antics, Crane’s character is never entirely unsympathetic. Late in the season, in “The Mighty Rogues”, he accompanies Shirley to visit her ailing father, also suffering from Alzheimers, though much further along. This episode is unusually fine and subtle, with Crane showing only the barest recognition that he is seeing his own future on the hospital bed. Shore, who ends up pressing Schmidt’s case to end her father’s suffering, is the one who breaks down, in court, because it is just too painful to contemplate his friend’s disease.

This is an ensemble show, with a good half dozen regular characters and countless guest actors and minor players. The acting, whether subtle and restrained, like John Laroquette’s Carl Sack, or tic-driven and showy like Christian Clemenson’s Jerry Espenson, is pretty good, much better, in fact, than the writing.

Clemenson, as the brilliant Tourettes-afflicted attorney who cannot remove his hands from his thighs, skirts very close to cartoonish-ness. It is the kind of performance that reminds you of Heath Ledger’s comment that he thought the Oscar was for best acting, not the most acting. However, amid the popping and obsessive pacing and wooden cigar tirades, he does slip in hints of a real person. He has some rather fine moments with Tara Summer’s Katy Lloyd, who joins the show in the fourth season, as the two of them make a real connection despite his social awkwardness.

The problem with the show, though, is the plotting. The cases that these lawyers try are uniformly bizarre: a 10-year-old bullfighter caught in a custody fight (“Do Tell”); the island of Nantucket suing for the atomic bomb (“The Mighty Rogues”); two prostitution beefs against a name partner of the firm; an HIV-positive teen suing her high school for abstinence only sex education (“The Chicken and the Leg”); a suit against a woman who has impregnated herself with stolen sperm (“Roe V. Wade, the Musical”). In the real world, these cases would never see the inside of a court room. In the series, they not only proceed, but the attorneys of Crane, Poole & Schmidt almost always win them.

The cases are chosen – by the screenwriters, not the lawyers they dream up – almost entirely to provide a platform for liberal opinionizing. There is hardly ever a week when Shore or Schmidt or one of the junior attorneys doesn’t spout sentiments worthy of Daily Kos. (Even I, a life-long Democrat and daily reader of Kos, find these tirades over the top.) No judge would allow such things to happen.

In the long bonus feature, a short film called New Kids on the Courtroom, the actors touch on the “craziness” of the show, with interviews with all five of the show’s fourth-season new players. In one excerpted scene, Sack observes to Schmidt (his lover, too, not something that would go over at most white shoe firms), “We routinely bring the most ridiculous lawsuits.” Schmidt replies, “And what’s the problem?”

Laroquette also explains his relatively buttoned-down approach to his role, as follows. “Being on the camera with Bill Shatner, one of the first times that I found myself underplaying the scene, because if you overplay a scene with Bill Shatner you end up eating the chairs,” he says. Er, yes, exactly.

All the actors in the featurette seem to really enjoy the anarchy, yet to me, it is only palatable because of the well-drawn relationships between the characters. After a hard day of haranguing Supreme Court Justices or failing the swim test for the Coast Guard Reserve or helping Concord, Massachusetts secede from the United States, you can always find Crane and Shore out on their mythical balcony sharing the kind of warmth and intimacy and understanding that most people don’t get from their families. Maybe that’s not any more believable than the cases they try, but it’s an inviting fantasy, nonetheless.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.